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Growing up in Canada's Yukon, Ricky Vernon O'Brien heard stories from the tribal elders of the devastation indigenous people suffered at the hands of the Europeans and their descendents: discrimination, abuse, forced integration and genocide. They told him it was like the Holocaust.
"I cried when I saw the connection first-hand. In some way it's so similar to what our people have been through. It brought back a lot of bad memories for me," said O'Brien, fresh from a trip to Yad Vashem. "They killed our spirit. That's what the Holocaust reminded me of. It's very sad."
In some circles the narrative of the Native Americans has been equated with that of the Palestinians rather than the Jews. Indeed, Palestinian groups criticized the Assembly of First Nations' recent week-long visit here as giving "cover for another form of settler colonialism," i.e. Zionism. here as giving "cover for another form of settler colonialism," i.e. Zionism.
But the leaders of the AFN, which represents the aboriginal peoples of Canada, rejected that comparison and came away with a different paradigm: a parallel between the Jewish and native experience so strong that the former could be a model for the latter.
"We're looking at you [Israelis] as sort of our mentors, how you've gotten your land back, how you're excelling at economic development. You're doing really well," said O'Brien, the AFN regional chief for the Yukon territory.
"One of the most striking aspects of the Jewish experience is the incredible resiliency of the Jewish people. That is quite similar to the indigenous peoples, or the first peoples of Canada. We've had to be resilient to survive as we have, in some ways challenged by the same pressures. We've both been persecuted. We've both been discriminated against. We've been denied our homeland. We've been denied our rightful place in the world," said AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine, as he sat serenely on a bench at the entrance to the Carmel market in Tel Aviv, his gray hair tied in a long, neat braid.
Fontaine pointed to the regeneration of Hebrew as a spoken language as an instructive example of what can be done.
"One of the lessons we will take back to Canada is that it's possible to revive languages, so that they will once against be living languages that will represent who we are."
As part of the trip arranged by the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), which also brought along representatives, the group stopped at the National Hebrew Language Institute to hear more about the language reclamation process.
Beyond specific cross-cultural education programs that they can apply to their communities, the AFN members had a lot to learn because it was a first trip to Israel for most.
Beverley Jacobs, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, for one, didn't know that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have their roots in the Holy Land.
And that, she said, connected this place to her traditional Native American faith. "I was always told in my religion that the white race and the red race all come from the same place," she said. "To learn that three religions come from the same place is proof of our oral histories."
Squatting on a plastic bench in the Mahane Yehuda market while sampling her first felafel, Jacobs noted another commonality with Jews: the struggle of maintaining a minority faith in a Christian-dominated society.
"Some of my family say you don't even walk into a church. You don't even participate in Christianity at all, because it will cause harm to you," she related. Jacobs herself puts up a non-religious Christmas tree in winter but said that many other families have stopped the practice as the community has increasingly embraced its roots.
Several of the delegates on the Israel trip are themselves Christians, however - largely as a result of the Canadian government's assimilation program which sent them to sectarian schools.
Tina Leveque, chief of Brokenhead Ojibway Nation in Manitoba, described adopting Christianity in addition to traditional beliefs as going "full circle."
"I acknowledge my creator, my heritage. But I also acknowledge that the creator has a son," she said, her neck encircled by a black scarf covered with "I love Jesus" script. "People say you take the white man's religion.
But there's nothing white about Jesus," she added. "Look around here. Jesus wasn't white at all."
Leveque wasn't the only member of the group to be struck by the heterogeneity of Israelis.
"I just had no idea that it was so diverse," said Cora Voyageur, a sociologist at the University of Calgary and a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. "All we ever hear about are the bombings."
THE AFN and CJC representatives both acknowledged that their communities had little interaction or mutual awareness before the trip, though they plan to strengthen ties and partnerships now.
They said the trip had been years in the making and was only accelerated by the brouhaha over anti-Semitic comments made by Chief David Ahenakew, former head of the AFN. In a 2002 interview, Ahenakew called Jews a "disease" and asserted that Hitler was justified when he "fried 6 million of those guys."
After being heavily criticized, he profusely apologized and said his statements stemmed from frustration. He was later stripped of his Order of Canada for willfully promoting anti-Semitism, a decision which he has since appealed.
The AFN delegates universally condemned the statements and said they in no way represented the sentiments of First Nations people. Jacobs, however, suggested that Ahenakew had been treated too harshly. "I think the media really overdid it. I'm sure that he said some comments about the Jewish people that aren't right. There are also things that have been said about our society that were just as racist," she said. "He's being persecuted for it."
While the visit to Israel represented an opportunity for healing between the two communities, CJC leaders said it was intended most of all as an education experience.
"We invited them to learn about Jewish history and culture," said Ed Morgan, CJC national president. "We hoped it would be an opportunity for the First Nations people to get to know us."
Though the trip paved the way for smoother relations between the aboriginal and Jewish communities, it stirred up resentment among Palestinians.
The Canada Palestine Association sent an "open letter" to the AFN signed by scores of pro-Palestinian groups and individuals expressing "sadness], hurt and shock" at the recent visit to Israel.
"The victims of genocide at the hands of European settler colonialism cannot and should not give cover for another form of settler colonialism that has committed and continues to commit wholesale ethic cleansing and genocide against the Palestinian people and nation," the letter reads, referring to Palestinian refugee camps as "reservations." It continues, "Perhaps the chiefs, elders and leaders of the Assembly of First Nations don't know the history of the Zionist movement. In fact, it was coined on the model of the European settler colonialist movement that preceded it hundred of years earlier and committed the genocide against the indigenous peoples." And it adds, "We are sorry that we do not have the means to take you on similar tours to show you what is really happening in Palestine."
Jacobs was reproachful that the mission didn't include time in Palestinian areas.
"I want to learn about what they're going through. We've heard one side and I want to hear about their experience," she said. "That was some of the criticism of the mission, that understanding the Palestinian side should have been part of the mission."
But she said that the concept of Israel as a "colonizer" was unfamiliar to her. "What I'm hearing is that this is the traditional territory of the Jewish people."
Other participants also dismissed or didn't know of any purported link between Israel and colonialism.
Fontaine declined to liken his people's history to that of the Palestinians.
"The purpose of our trip was not to delve into the Palestinian situation. We came here to learn about the Jewish experience and witness very directly the transition of this country and hear it directly from the people who have lived that transition. They've experienced the creation of one nation-state and secured their homeland against tremendous odds."
And that, he continued, "is inspirational, it's spiritual, it's heartfelt, it's hopeful. It's a stay-the-course approach."
He also said that for all of the messages that can be absorbed from Israelis, Israel has something to learn from his people when it comes to peaceful coexistence.
"We have this incredibly uncertain situation in the Middle East: instability and violence and the denial of Israel's existence as a nation-state. In spite of all the ill treatment that we've received, we're still committed to peaceful coexistence. We've lived the principle of peaceful coexistence and sharing the riches of the land."
The Jews on the trip certainly received hands-on learning - literally - from their time with the First Nations delegation.
Bernie Farber, the CJC's CEO, got a lesson in Native American healing following the trip to Yad Vashem. As with O'Brien, Farber was shaken up by the experience. Visiting the children's room was particularly troubling for him, since he has family who perished at a young age in the concentration camps.
One of the First Nations elders saw that Farber was in pain upon leaving the museum and gathered the group to surround him in a friendship circle. Farber said the members of the circle try to absorb the pain of the person in distress and restore strength to that individual.
"I found all my pain just disappear," he said. "It's the first time I've come out of the children's room and felt strengthened instead of weakened."
Sounding like O'Brien, Farber said, "It was a remarkable experience."
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